The Moving Stagehttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/the-moving-stage/

The Moving Stage

Theatre thrives in its ability to make people dream. Geoffrey Kendal,who formed the travelling theatre group Shakespeareana with his wife Laura in the 1940s,was well aware of that.

With Prithvi Theatre behind her,Sanjna Kapoor is looking to revive her grandparents’ legacy of travelling theatre

Theatre thrives in its ability to make people dream. Geoffrey Kendal,who formed the travelling theatre group Shakespeareana with his wife Laura in the 1940s,was well aware of that. Once after arriving at Doon School,Dehradun,he put a folding chair in the middle of its amphitheatre,Rose Bowl,and announced: “This is the throne of Denmark.” The students were in splits. But when the performance of Hamlet by his theatre company Shakespeareana started,a hushed silence prevailed. The young audience was drawn into the world of a prince wracked by doubt and dithering,and Shakespeare’s world of love,deceit and revenge. The chair had indeed turned into the throne of Denmark.

The episode was narrated to Sanjna Kapoor,Kendal’s granddaughter,by one of the students who was in the audience. Now a successful businessman,he recalled how they would wait for Shakespeareana’s annual visits,which took the Bard’s plays to schools across India and other countries. While Shakespeareana toured India extensively with plays mostly written by the Bard and at times by George Barnard Shaw and Oscar Wilde,the Prithvi Theatre Group performed Hindi plays in the Forties and the Fifties. By the Sixties,Prithviraj Kapoor’s ill-health forced an end to Prithvi’s tours,but the Kendals continued travelling till the Eighties.

Today,that legacy of travelling theatre is up for revival. Last November,Sanjna Kapoor stepped down as the director of Prithvi Theatre,and announced her new passion project,Junoon. Among other goals,she wanted to take some of the best theatrical productions from India and abroad to various parts of the country,just the way her grandparents did,under the banner of Junoon. Having managed Prithvi Theatre,located in Mumbai’s suburban Juhu,for over two decades,she saw this as “a natural progression”.

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Kapoor knew she was on the right path when a generation who had watched and been moved by those itinerant thespians responded warmly to the idea. One of those was actor Naseeruddin Shah,who famously found schooling dreary till he saw Shakespereana perform at St Joseph’s College,Nainital. He found his calling in acting. He has already signed up as one of Kapoor’s collaborators. Early next year,his theatre group Motley will present a “Shaw Festival” in Delhi and Gurgaon as part of Junoon’s itinerary.

The idea of a touring act had taken root in Kapoor’s mind years ago. Perhaps it was when as a 12-year-old she played the queen of fairies Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Geoffrey Kendal’s Bottom in Shakespeareana’s Scenes from Shakespeare and travelled across Ireland,performing at schools. “By then,my grandparents were old and their trips to India were infrequent,” she recalls. This experience showed her the thrill of performing as well as theatre’s ability to engage with the youth.

Junoon will help relive that experience,she hopes. “We will function as theatre curators,taking the best of theatre productions to different parts of India,” says Kapoor,who plans to bring one international play a year to India. Junoon’s first programme “Arts at Play” rolls out in mid-April — with 46 workshops,21 plays and 55 shows. This replaces Prithvi Theatre’s very popular Summertime for schoolchildren and will continue till June 10. “Art opens up worlds and perspectives that one doesn’t directly experience. And such experiences are very important in urban society as such platforms can be little oasis,” says Kapoor. The pilot project of Junoon will be spread across five venues in Mumbai. Next year,it will move to other centres such as Patna,Kolkata and Gandhinagar through collaboration. In the following years,its reach will be widened further.

Kapoor,who is leading a discussion on “Spaces of Theatre,Theatre for Space” during a the coming three-day seminar at Ninasam in Karnataka,believes India has enough performance spaces. However,they need to be “energised” and infused with vibrant spirit. In the past,she has been instrumental in bringing national plays to Horniman Circle Garden in Mumbai’s Fort area and Karnataka Sangha,in the neighbourhood of Matunga. Now,she wants to extend similar efforts to other parts of India. This apart,some of the crucial functions of Junoon will be to work as consultants,providing their expertise,and to function as collaborators.

The core team of Junoon comprises of Kapoor,Sameera Iyengar,an MIT graduate with a PhD in theatre from the University of Chicago,Ayaz Ansari,an experienced production manager in theatre,Satyam Viswanathan,a market researcher with an MBA from Cornell University,and Swati Apte,an Odissi dancer and Harvard Business School graduate. Their backgrounds and expertise are varied but they share the dream of making a change in society though art,especially theatre.

Kapoor and Iyengar have been the powerhouse team behind Prithvi Theatre. Kapoor took charge of Prithvi in 1990,six years after her mother’s death due to cancer. The theatre’s operations,mainly administration,needed a lot of attention. However,in June 2002,by then five months pregnant,she was looking for someone to share the responsibility. Iyengar had completed her PhD and was looking for a job when they met. Kapoor told Iyengar,“At Prithvi Theatre,you will be underpaid,but I am giving you a dream.” Iyenger accepted the offer. This was the beginning of a decade-long partnership.

Kapoor,by her own admission,and Iyengar’s account was “chaotic,filled with crazy energy”,her decisions and plans mostly instinctive. “Sanjna had a very clear idea about what she wanted to do. She always talked about taking theatre to people and collaborating with groups to realise this dream. But she couldn’t articulate her ideas to us,” she says. As a result,Iyengar ended up asking endless questions. “I had to achieve the clarity she had,” she says. Now,they dream of creating an atmosphere for theatre where young artists can make the choice of “becoming professional theatre actors” without worrying over financial concerns.

Junoon has worked out a sketchy calendar of its activities for the next few years. The renowned Footsbarn Theatre’s Tempest will be staged in Mumbai during November and December. “We are trying to take it to at least another Indian city. We are also trying to host their performance in the traditional tents,” says Iyengar,who along with Kapoor took this group to five Indian cities in 2005. Apart from Motley,Mumbai-based group Arpana’s Stories in a Song,which strings together episodes related to India’s music tradition,will also have a multi-city tour in India next year.

The most obvious question for them: is Junoon going to come up with a theatre group of its own? Kapoor and Iyengar say they are happy playing the role of “facilitators”. “However,we can’t say never. If it eventually does take shape,it will be done keeping the Junoon philosophy in mind,” says Iyengar.

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